Susan Wierzba

First Parish Church, August 28, 2016

How can we create a faith home at First Parish that can measure up to God’s extravagant welcome? We don’t know who is going to walk through the doors of our sanctuary whether today, next week or a year from now.  What we do know is that God has invited us all and invites everyone who seeks his presence, Christ is the Host at this banquet and we are to serve with open hearts responding to God’s invitation.  Are we ready for our guests?  ….. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, my Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

            Okay, it’s 1667.  “The parishioners of our early church, who were poor settlers being mostly, farmers, fisherman, and adventurers, built the second church/meeting house/courthouse.  Prior to 1667 the town actually had no one preacher for any length of time.  York was seen as an asylum for excommunicated and itinerant ministers (for example one extremely bearded minister who always jumped out of the window after his sermon.) Who were these first parishioners?  What were they seeking?  Did they find the presence of Christ in their midst.  In comes The Reverend Shubael Dummer who was ordained as our church’s first Congregational pastor. He was a beloved pastor and led the First Parish congregation spiritually for 27 years. Unfortunately during the Candlemas Massacre, all of York and Rev. Dummer’s and his family were attacked by Abenaki Indians.   Afterwards, the town and the church populations were greatly diminished; there were only 4 men left in the congregation.  I can feel our early congregation’s hearts breaking. Our church survived by this early congregation’s faith, grace and God’s presence.   As York grew and became safe, the congregation grew as well.   Their customs and practices were quite different than ours, but our congregation was birthed.  We have called 30 pastors since. 

            Actually, I am not here to talk about the ministerial or church history of our First Parish church…. I’m excited to talk about why and how we welcome guests to First Parish Church today.  As a matter of fact, I’m passionate about it. During our discernment process 5 years ago we penned our Motto, “Following Christ, Serving All.”  How are we living into this?   

            When our hopeful flock of worshippers formed in 1636 as an Anglican church,  as settlers in a new out post, no one would have thought we would still be here after 380 years, which makes First Parish York the oldest congregation in continuous existence in Maine.  It has survived through wars, controversy, Indian attacks, several church affiliations, fires, scores of pastors (one a “fire and brimstone” preacher and his son who wore a handkerchief to cover his face in shame.) and thousands of members.   Let me ask you a question, “Who has been here since 1636?” Of course, none of us!  We are all “new” to this church, some newer than others. 

            So, whom is God inviting to our church?  Are they people who are looking for new or renewed spiritual growth and guidance? Have they moved here recently?  Have they felt uncomfortable at another place of worship?  Are they here for the inspirational music or Anna’s thought-provoking sermons?  Are they looking for fellowship? Or possibly they have come back to the church to share memories of childhood God with their children?  Maybe they are searching for a deeper meaning after a long life? Pastor Anna has said that individuals decide to visit a church within seven weeks of a major change in their lives: A marriage, death, birth, a move, or illness, etc.  Are we welcoming only those who look like us, think like us, behave like us, or can we open wide our doors to “the poor, the crippled, the young, The elderly, the lame and the blind.  We are reminded to Worship Christ and Serving All.

            So why am I so inspired to be as extravagantly welcoming?  God has called me to many different churches.  As many of you may know I have moved a great deal in my life (24 times) with a father in the military service, and following my husband’s careers.  Every move was met with finding a home, schools, doctors, friends, but most important to Dennis and I … a faith home.  I have been new so many times that I know how deeply appreciative it is to feel welcomed.  In addition, growing up in a church where I was an obedient, and faithful participant I wanted a place of worship where I could also make a difference.  I searched for ways to discover how God could use my (yet undiscovered) gifts.  I also needed a respite from all the hustle bustle of life, whether raising children, working at hospitals and non-profits, going back to school, or following an artistic journey.  I was looking for a spiritual “home. ”

            The following are three faith experiences that have made me passionate about welcoming others into Christ’s presence.

            -In 1976 When I lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia there was no church and no ministers.  When God calls you to be in a faith community, sometimes you have to look a little harder.  But, there were many Christians meeting quietly in each other’s homes.  Having no phones (long before cell phones, test messaging or Internet especially in the middle of the Saudi dessert) news was spread by word of mouth.  God’s call, God’s extravagant hospitality has no borders.  We were faithfully “entertained” in the sanctuaries of expatriate homes.  Christ was in our midst.

            -In 1998, Dennis and I had just moved again and were looking for a church, we found out about the United Church of Christ one Saturday afternoon.  We were hiking down a woodland path behind our new house that led to a river.  When unknowingly we ventured into a neighbor’s woods, and we came upon “Carol.”  She smiled, and let us know that we were welcome to “trespass” anytime and then issued us an invitation to visit their church, A UCC parish in Norwell, Massachusetts.  That invitation turned into being introduced around the next Sunday, and an offer to join a couple’s bible study. We felt welcomed!! I was curious about this United Church of Christ.  Dennis and I both grew up as Catholics and were married in an Episcopal church.  We found that the UCC offered us a spiritual home where we were encouraged to ask questions, fully participate and increase our faith.  We felt a breath of fresh air and our faith community and caring friends for the next 6 years.  

            - In 2004 when we moved to a town north of Atlanta, Dennis and I found a small, active UCC Church in a sea of large Baptist congregations.  It was a destination church that some people traveled an hour each Sunday to attend worship. As a matter of fact when we moved Marietta, Georgia we found Pilgrimage UCC church first and then our house.  It was multi-racial, open and affirming and filled with love and faith.   God called everyone there to a life of faith together. All were so glad to find a welcoming church and all were serving in some ministry. Christ was in our midst.

            -When we moved to York in 2008, we were gently welcomed, and after a few visits, we knew we found our spiritual home.  Especially when Wendell played “Let there be Peace on Earth” which was the, oh, so familiar closing hymn at Pilgrimage UCC in Georgia.  Dennis and I have grown in faith here at First Parish.  We have been overwhelmingly supported, especially when my father passed away in 2010 and for the two years of treatment for Dennis’ cancer. We value its UCC traditions, guiding principles and welcoming message.  Among some of the greatest gifts of First Parish are its good blend of generations, genders and talented members of from different walks of life, orientations, and faith backgrounds.  Pastor Anna is a gifted, generous, energetic and faith-filled leader. And the children and youth are the heart of our congregation.  First Parish is joyful, biblically based and is healthy enough to have members whose faith ranges from progressive to conservative all worshiping, serving, discerning and praying under the same steeple.  And I am so glad First Parish has increasingly become a mission-focused congregation, with 10% of all fundraising supporting one of our 36 missions. Welcoming Christ and serving all. Both Dennis and I have found grace, spirit, renewed faith, courage, fellowship and God’s call in this place. 

            God’s extravagant welcome was served well by the hostess “ministers” of Riyadh, by my friend Carol, and by the involvement of all members at Pilgrimage church.  Those are just a few of our experiences that have made me bordering on obsessive about hospitality in our church.  That’s my story.  What is yours?  What led you to First Parish church?  Were you greeted when you came to church the first time?  What does First Parish mean to you? Have you had a chance to reach out to in return to others in this congregation?    If you are new to this church, please talk to one of the deacons or Welcoming Team, and get connected in a bible study group, or a committee, helping with one of the dozens of mission projects or maybe Fit For Life, the exercise group, etc.  How is God calling you to serve?   If you are not involved yet, take the leap as Anna said in her sermon last week.    

            Talking about leaping, we are so blessed to have received 20 new members as well as 14 New Confirmands in the last year or so who are using their gifts to serve FP Parish:

Susan Mancinelli and Linda Drew – Started the Dress a Girl program at FP

Cheryl Pinder – Teaches 3rd and 4th grade Sunday school

Judy Goodwin – Has organized the Children’s Christmas Play the last two years

Robin LaBonte is on the Investments Committee

Esther Martindale – is on the Pastoral Relations Committee

John Pendleton, Phlip and Linda Drew and Jean Rae are on the Mission Committee

Ray Mancinelli is on the Music Committee

Diane Johnson is interested in revitalizing small dinner groups joined Women/Move

Melissa O’Keefe, Shawn McCartee, and Nanette Roberts joined our Sanctuary Choir

What are your gifts?  Can you use them here? Make the leap!         

One great new Opportunity coming up this fall. Everyone is invited to join one of several small groups to discern our vision for a more vital and faithful church.  Sign up starting September. Take the leap.

            God has prepared the invitation.  Pastor Anna and Maestro Wendell have thoughtfully planned the menu of worship.  We, the parishioners, are the Servers at Christ Table. It is our Hospitality that will make a big impact.  We are all being fed by the same spirit that has always filled our church, but because it is our house at the moment, we need to put on our aprons and best welcoming and gentle smiles and our guests feel as if they have found their spiritual home and new friends in Christ.

            Now you ask, how can I help?  The Hospitality Committee, a subcommittee of the Deacons of our church, is responsible for creating a welcoming atmosphere and a spirit of 'inclusion' to guests at First Parish Church. However, everyone at First Parish Church is a part of our Hospitality “team.”  Here are a few suggestions.  First wear your nametag.  Then be aware of any guests in your pew and make them feel at home.  Introduce them to others around you.  Encourage guests to fill in the Information card and place it in the Offering basket. Thank them for worshipping with us.  Invite them to accompany you to coffee hour. Ask them to come again.  Introduce them to the pastor.  If they haven’t yet received a welcome packet, let myself or a deacon or Hospitality member wearing yellow nametags, know.  Maybe you might think, that someone else has probably welcomed them or that they may not need to be welcomed by more than one person….Well, God led them here, Christ has nourished them during the service, we just need to make them feel at home, at ease and welcome in this our faith home.   

            In Closing, pray and prepare for those that are called to our Church. Our past, present and future continues to be reliant on those who God has nudged to walk through our doors, and are excited to come again if we have extended them genuine gift of welcome.  

            Where will we be 10 years from now?    Based on our recent history, we could have an additional 150 new members in 10 years.  Some will be with us for a short time and others may leave when God calls them to a new home.  However, will we continue to be a beacon of faith, welcoming new guests, encouraging them to serve and become members? We will laugh, and cry, and celebrate and grow in faith with them.  It is up to God’s welcome, Christ’s care and guidance and our flair and skill for entertaining our newest company.

Hospitable God, you have invited each of us to this banquet where the last may be first, and the humble and the mighty trade places. Let us share our abundant grace without fear; let us greet strangers as angels you have sent. Send your Spirit now so that we may find a place at your table and welcome others with radical hospitality.

We pray in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.